The New Old Politics of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike

On February 22nd, schoolteachers in each of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties did not show up for work. With no one to teach class, and no substitutes to call on, every school in the state closed. The lead-up to the strike happened so quickly that, as it began, its aims were a little elusive. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have said, ‘I can’t tell you how we got here—I blinked, and here we are,’ ” Stephen Wotring, the superintendent of schools in Preston County, said on Tuesday afternoon.

The teachers spoke about two kinds of issues, overlapping but distinct. Their primary grievance was that they made, by national standards, very little money, and that the governor had partly reneged on a promise to increase their pay. The other issue was more complex. West Virginia has so many vacant teaching positions that, in many schools, grades had been combined for efficiency, and teachers were teaching subjects for which they were not certified or trained. A bill had been proposed in the state legislature to lower teacher-certification standards in order to more easily fill the vacant jobs, but, to the current teachers, this bill was evidence that politicians in the state were not genuinely interested in improving the schools. On this matter, the rhetoric was especially sharp. Hand in hand with the grievance over compensation was a sense that the Appalachian middle class was in crisis.

West Virginia has the most cinematic labor history of any state in the country, and, as this week began, the schools still closed, the teachers began to channel it explicitly. Teachers’-union officials made sure to emphasize that the movement to strike had begun among teachers in the southern part of the state, the coal regions, the old union strongholds from when West Virginia was known as a labor state, not a conservative one. On Monday, the teachers staged a rally in Charleston, the state capital, at which they wore red shirts (some also wore red bandannas) to echo the chosen costume of the picketing mine workers of the Battle of Blair Mountain, in 1921, the largest strike in American history. West Virginia voted for President Trump by a huge margin in the 2016 election, but there had also been strong support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Among progressives, there has been hope that the state might at some point revert from its more recent conservative identity to its older pro-labor one. In the teachers’ strike, they saw a glimmer. Ken Fones-Wolf, a labor historian at West Virginia University, told me that the strike was the most important in the state since at least 1989. He said that he thought it might reflect a general turn in the state’s politics. “Do I sound too rosy?” Fones-Wolf asked, and laughed. “I’ve been wrong before.”

The most famous speaker at the Charleston rally was Cecil Roberts, the seventy-one-year-old president of the United Mine Workers of America, and a figure from a more combative era. (“He’s been jailed dozens of times!” a hype man cried out, by way of introduction.) Rough-voiced, shouty, and intent on raising the stakes, Roberts warned that the anti-union movement would try to sever the union from its leadership (“They attacked Jesus! They attacked Moses!”), and he compared the strike to West Virginia’s labor actions past: the ten thousand coal miners who marched in Logan County, in the nineteen-twenties; the two thousand, himself among them, who walked out of mines in Appalachian Virginia, in 1989, when the Pittston Coal Company cut their benefits. But there was a notable demographic difference between Roberts and his supporters from the mine workers’ union—who came to the rally wearing camo—and his schoolteacher audience, most of which was women, many of whom had brought their children. Eventually, Roberts toned it down a little. “This is not really a strike,” he said. “This is when the good people of West Virginia take back their state.”

By midday Tuesday, with the schools still closed, Christine Campbell, the state president of the American Federation of Teachers, was making the rounds at the capitol, trying to figure out what Jim Justice, the state’s six-foot-seven-inch billionaire governor, would do. She seemed to view the strike as somewhat less glorious than Roberts did, and the position of her members as precarious. West Virginia does not recognize the right of public employees to bargain collectively. There are teachers in the state, Campbell told me from the capitol, who “pick up fast-food shifts on the weekends.” The state’s teachers make forty-four thousand dollars a year on average, which ranks forty-eighth in the nation, and districts along West Virginia’s borders have seen many instructors leave for higher-paying jobs across state lines in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “We have students who have graduated from high school without ever having had a certified math teacher,” Campbell said. She kept switching between modes—between a narrow argument that the teachers deserved better compensation and a more general anxiety about the strength of the state’s middle-class institutions. She said, “If we don’t stand up for public education, we’re going to go the way the coal miners did.”

In the past two and a half years—since the opioid epidemic announced itself as a crisis, and the 2016 Presidential campaign began in earnest—Appalachia has often been discussed in Campbell’s terms, as if the fate of the coal mines was becoming the fate of the region. The general story of a cultural crisis matched the one presented in the writer J. D. Vance’s memoir of Appalachian Ohio, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance’s Appalachia was a clannish, abused place in which success was resented and family relations were chaotic. Once it became obvious that the region was a center of the Trump phenomenon, arriving national political reporters saw things, at least partly, through Vance’s eyes. The Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote, “Trump’s perceived character . . . resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values.” Liberal analysts have tended to consider the region the…

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